Label of the Month: Heist Recordings
Label of the Month: Heist RecordingsJuly 5, 2022
After working on tunes together for a few years, in 2012 Lars Dales and Maarten Smeets released their first EP, The Wrap Around, to instant acclaim. Its gently undulating pad chords and big, fat descending b-line introduced a confident new take on deep house: clean, crisp, soulful and jacking, but edgy, fresh, and exciting.
It was an accessible but underground sound that proved highly effective on the dance floor, and the pair went on to release a clutch of well-received EPs on Freerange, Tsuba and Dirt Crew before launching their Heist imprint the following year.
Heist has since become one of house music’s most dependable imprints, a label with a clear sonic and visual identity and home to a series of well-respected releases from Dam Swindle as well as new and established artists including Nachtbraker, Brame & Hamo, Fouk, Frits Wentink, Nebraska, Alma Negra, Marina Trench and Orlando Voorn.
Meanwhile, over the last ten years, Dam Swindle and their party-friendly blend of disco, house, Afro and techno have become DJs-in-demand with a busy international DJing schedule. And aside from their Heist singles they’ve also released two critically acclaimed full-length artist albums, remixed artists like Kerri Chandler, Mayer Hawthorne and Dave Lee’s Sunburst Band and their musical collaborators include Tom Misch, Seven Davis Jr and Jitwam.
Chatting with us via Zoom, the Dutch house duo are as relaxed and jovial as ever, but there’s also a clear sense of a dedicated work ethic. Their commitment to every part of their roles — be it A&R for their label, producing those killer Dam Swindle beats or crate-digging for DJing and samples — is always unswerving, and the pair’s business acumen is every bit as sleek and slick as their tracks.
With their seemingly effortless rise to the top, Dam Swindle make it look easy, but underneath, their success has been the result of years of hard work, an extremely professional approach to business, a clear artistic vision and that magic ingredient, a little bit of luck.
The Heist story begins in the hectic few months following Dam Swindle’s initial release. “I always had a dream of starting our own label,” says Lars “and just releasing music on our own terms, because you have more control over the creative input on the record itself, on the sleeves, the distribution and the promotion. It was a very logical step for us to take at the time because we were getting so much notoriety, and because of that notoriety it felt like a good time to push other artists forward too. And there’s no better way to do that than with a label. Maarten had the same idea, so that’s what we did.”
Seizing their moment, the pair rode the wave of momentum generated from their first few non-Heist releases and were then spurred on by a serendipitous Boiler Room appearance generating some serious hype for their new label. “There was so much attention for our releases that the timing was just perfect for the first release on Heist,” says Maarten. “It was partly planning and it was partly just pure luck. We had the release plan, we had the masters, and a week later we played the Freerange Boiler Room in London. So we could demo the first Heist release and we also had the second release ready too, which was Max Graef. We played that on the Boiler Room as well and people went nuts for it! They were all like “What is this, I need to have it!” and so we could tell everyone it’s the new one on Heist. And if the first two releases on your label get that much attention and that much press — then you’re there.”
The label launched with Dam Swindle’s two-track Break Up To Make Up EP, with the raw US-style house beats, soulful vocals and near-perfect dance floor dynamics of “The Break Up” quickly attaining minor-modern-classic status. Heist was never simply just a vehicle for Dam Swindle’s music though, and the label has always been a breeding ground for new talent. Lars and Maarten’s genuine commitment to A&R — to actually finding and developing new talent — has been at the heart of Heist’s operations from the very beginning. Indeed, after the Break Up To Make Up EP in 2013, the pair didn’t release another Dam Swindle record on Heist until 2015’s Punch Drunk EP, preferring instead to develop the label through a string of quality releases from other artists.
Those early Heist tunes, like Max Graef’s wonky “Jungle”, Nachtbraker’s excellent debut release, the Gute Laune EP, the glorious deep disco of Andy Hart’s “Epsilon Girls” or Frits Wentink’s tech-garage “Shrewd” created a particular sonic identity for the label: pure dance floor jams; part-disco, part-house, always cutting edge and forward-looking. Maarten and Lars were also careful to create a recognisable visual aesthetic from the very start too, one that reflected the style of the music and would help create the whole Heist package. “We care for the details,” says Lars. “Heist has a very specific graphic style that we have developed and it’s evolved but it’s always very recognisable. From the very first record, you can always tell it’s a Heist record.”
Visuals aside, a large part of that brand recognition is down to Dam Swindle’s extremely hands-on approach to A&R. “We always tell the artists when they’re putting together an EP that we want to help them find their own voice,” says Maarten. “We want them to really go deep into what they want to create, and we help them with that. So whether that’s with just doing the release, helping them find guest vocalists or helping them in moulding their sound, with the key artists we tend to hold an almost managerial position in how we run the label… We’re family-focused; we really take care of everyone. This is not just a business relationship: it’s a very personal thing”
Artists don’t always receive this level of attention from record labels, and the development of high-quality working relationships like this is the main reason that many producers return to Heist for multiple releases. Alistair Gibbs records as Nebraska and has released several Heist EPs.
“The thing that a great label with great A&R adds is focus,” Gibbs tells us. “As an artist, having people whose taste you trust to edit and somehow clarify your work is hugely important. Maarten and Lars have often spotted the best things in my early, less focused demos and helped me see more clearly what it is I’m doing.” Multi-instrumentalist and producer Crackazat, whose piano stormer “Alfa” dropped on Heist last year, is a big fan of what he calls Heist’s “distinctly dusty, moody and driving sound” and echoes Nebraska’s sentiments. “Working with Maarten and Lars made me push the sonics, depth and weight in my own productions to new limits,” he says. “It’s a continued joy to work with Heist!”
A&R at Heist is A&R in the traditional sense of the role: it involves developing new talent as well as spotting the next big hit. It’s an approach that has helped launch several new artists, including Nachtbraker, Dutch duo Fouk and Hackney’s Kassian, who all had their first releases on Heist.
“We really help our artists to develop themselves and become the best or become the artists that they want to be,” continues Maarten. “And this really shows in how the music comes out, because all these releases feel like super personal projects to them, which helps Heist stand out from a lot of other labels. There are a lot of really good labels that have their machine working, and they put out release after release after release. You can see them growing and making money but I think that the custom approach that we have with Heist makes it more niche, but also makes it more lovable.”
A loveable but niche product with a custom approach isn’t always an easy sell, and over the years, Heist has had its inevitable ups and downs. In this business, where trends and genres move so fast, there’s no room for complacency; you simply can’t take your eye off the ball, even for a moment. “You need to renew your A&R every now and then and make sure that there’s fresh blood coming in,” Maarten tells us. “We’ve had times where it was just hard to find really good music, which is difficult from an A&R perspective, but also from a perspective of where we want to take the label. And at some point, Lars said “Well, do we have to release this many records? Are we okay, with just releasing five or six a year? We set the standard for ourselves, and whether that’s ten releases or six releases doesn’t really matter.”
Their commitment to quality over quantity and constant re-evaluation of every part of the process of making and releasing records — the music, the artwork, the distribution and the marketing — has helped keep Heist on top. “Now with every release,” says Lars, “we’re just like, ‘How can we make this better? How can we improve this process?’ So we’re always evolving.”
The evolution continues unabated this year as Dam Swindle celebrate a decade of Heist with three Dam Swindle releases. “The first release is two originals,” says Maarteen, “a new mix of a classic track of ours with Mayer Hawthorne, “64 Ways,” and we’ve had UK upcoming jazz star Emma Jean Thackray do a complete rework of “The Breakup.” She’s recorded her own vocals and added new instrumental parts, which was our brief to her, and this is when we get really happy from an A&R perspective, when everything just falls into place.”
The second release is an Afro-orientated remix of “Call Of The Wild” from Dam Swindle’s 2018 High Life album, due for September. They’ve also licensed an unofficial remix of a 1970s Guadeloupean jazz outfit Gaoulé Mizik, as well as a new release from Dutch Afro group Arp Frique with an Ash Lauren remix, and a third EP with Nightmares On Wax. Dam Swindle’s classic “The Wrap Around” is also getting a vinyl re-release for the first time since 2013, and Heist have a series of new EPs lined up for the rest of the year with Crackazat, Cinthie, Byron The Aquarius and Makèz.
Looking back across a decade of Dam Swindle success, we wondered what the duo were most proud of. “We created a really strong brand,” says Lars. “We see it in the promo feedback: people just blindly download Heist promos, because they know it’s quality, and they believe it’s good, even before they’ve listened to it. And I think that’s something you can’t put a price tag on. I don’t even have to brag about it, it’s just true! [laughs] You can see it, you can hear it, nobody can deny the quality of our label, and that’s something that we created and I’m very, very proud of it.”
We’ll leave the last word on Dam Swindle and the Heist label to Dutch DJ/producer and Heist artist Orlando Voorn. “Sometimes you come across souls who stand aligned with you and make it easy and pleasant to work with,” he tells us. “Taste-wise, Heist is a perfect label for me to be on. Their music is top-notch!”